(Is "Only" a Sinner Accurate of Christians?)

I have been challenged several times regarding this description of the Christian. Doesn't its very absoluteness ("only") render it incorrect? Not necessarily. It depends upon the purpose of the speaker or author.

The phrase was popularized by a gospel song, published in 1905. It was written by Dr. James Martin Gray, a Reformed Episcopal clergyman who eventually served as president of Moody Bible Institute (1925-1934)–years, during which my father was a student there. The song, called Only a Sinner, says in part:

Naught have I gotten but what I received;
Grace hath bestowed it since I have believed;
Boasting excluded, pride I abase;
I’m only a sinner, saved by grace!

Only a sinner, saved by grace!
Only a sinner, saved by grace!
This is my story, to God be the glory—
I’m only a sinner, saved by grace!

Tears unavailing, no merit had I;
Mercy had saved me, or else I must die;
Sin had alarmed me fearing God’s face;
But now I’m a sinner saved by grace!

“Only” a sinner? No, of course not. We are much more than that. We are new creations in Christ. We are children of God, born into His family. We are elevated to the position of sons, and we are called “saints” (God’s set apart ones), and much more. But I’m quite certain Dr. Gray would have ably defended all of that.

It's simply not practical to cover every aspect of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) in one song. The focus here is on grace–God’s unmerited favour–and on making it crystal clear that nothing we could do, in ourselves, would make us acceptable to a holy God.

To demonstrate his fuller view of salvation, consider that James Gray also added a refrain to Aaron Wolfe’s gospel song, Complete in Thee. Gray’s addition, clearly taken from Romans 8:30, says:

Yea, justified! O blessed thought!
And sanctified! Salvation wrought!
Thy blood hath pardon bought for me,
And glorified I too shall be!

All of that is true as well. It’s a matter of emphasis. Consider how the Apostle Paul described himself, long after his conversion. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief [i.e. the worst of all]" (I Tim. 1:15). Notice, he doesn't say he was the chief of sinners, or he used to be, before he got saved. It is "I am."

Actually, we can see quite a similar thing elsewhere in the Word of God, which is one reason proof-texting with an isolated verse here and there is dangerous. We need to take context into account, and what else the Lord has to say on the particular subject in view.

For example, Paul wrote in Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But that’s not the whole story. "All?" He might well have said, “All have sinned, with the exception of Jesus, and fall short of the glory of God.”

Or take another example. In Galatians, Paul says, “Let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing [cause for boasting] in himself alone, and not in another” (Gal. 6:4). “Boasting [the meaning of the Greek word kauchema] in himself alone? What about rejoicing or boasting in the Lord, and thanking the Lord? Well, yes, and Paul deals with that elsewhere (I Cor. 1:31; 15:10; II Cor. 3:5, etc.). It just wasn’t what he was trying to say in the Galatians text.

Bottom line: I am only a sinner saved by grace, in terms of how I gained accepted with God. It was not by any merit in myself. But, in Christ, I’m also a new creation, justified, sanctified, and certain of the glory to come. Praise the Lord!